Lawyers Make Good Neighbors

Gary L. Cooper

Idaho State Bar Commissioner

Sixth and Seventh Districts

Published October 2021

Recently I was elected Bar Commissioner for the Sixth and Seventh Judicial Districts.  As I begin my three-year term, I am concerned whether I can make a difference and whether I can make a contribution which will help the Idaho State Bar remain relevant to its members. The Idaho State Bar office has a highly competent and professional staff for which we all should be thankful.  My fellow commissioners are bright, talented, and thoughtful.  With such a strong support system already in place to help me, I think I just need to focus. 

I have known for some time that one of the challenges we face as a profession is encouraging and supporting lawyers to live and practice in small communities.  The Sixth and Seventh Judicial Districts are made up of 16 counties, 10 of which are considered counties with “nominal legal representation.”  Those 10 counties have 54 lawyers to serve a population of nearly 90,000.  That statistic is somewhat deceiving because the reality is that some counties have no lawyers and others have only one or two.  I believe the same situation exists in many of the other judicial districts. 

I grew up on the outskirts of Caldwell.  Today Caldwell is a fast-growing community like the rest of the Boise Valley.  When I was growing up it was a rural community that was known more for its stock yards and seed crops than it was for the College of Idaho, which was a first-rate small college.  I knew lawyers lived and worked in Caldwell, but I never had a conversation with any of them until after I was in law school.  However, without ever having had a conversation with them, I respected them and knew they could be trusted.

If you had asked me then why I respected and trusted them, I am not sure I could have explained it.  Maybe it is because I read To Kill a Mockingbird in English class or that in my Idaho History class, I learned about the Haywood trial where Idaho lawyers James Hawley and William Borah held their own against the legendary Clarence Darrow, even though he got Bill Haywood acquitted.  I did not have a very clear understanding of what lawyers did at that point.  I certainly did not understand why the John Birch Society wanted to impeach Chief Justice Earl Warren according to the billboards on the Nampa-Caldwell Boulevard.  SCOTUS was far removed from my reality, and we never discussed such things around the dinner table at my house. 

While I was attending law school years later, I had the chance to return to Caldwell and work with some of those lawyers I had heard about while growing up in the 1960’s. I was not disappointed in what I saw and learned from being around them.  I saw them in courtrooms, on school boards, in city and county government and elsewhere in the community.  They were doing what lawyers do.  Some were prosecuting the accused to make our community safe, and others were representing the accused to make sure that even the least admired among us were treated fairly and received justice.  They were representing creditors and debtors.  They were representing the injured and defending those who had been sued.  And they were drafting wills and agreements for anybody who needed help with a transaction.

“They were not perfect, but they were good citizens, neighbors, and friends.”

Whether they knew it, and whether I appreciated it then, they were doing this without regard to age, race, religion, sex, wealth, or social status.  They believed in the rule of law.  They were not perfect, but they were good citizens, neighbors, and friends.  Caldwell was a better place because of the lawyers who lived and practiced there.

I am convinced that our rural neighbors lose something when lawyers do not live and work within their communities.  The answer to why more lawyers do not choose to live and practice in rural communities which offer such beautiful surroundings, a slower pace of life, easy access to recreation, and a relatively cheaper cost of living are too numerous to mention.  I do not know how to reduce the cost of a legal education or how to solve the problem of student debt that burdens many new lawyers graduating from law school.  I know I will not be able to resolve those issues in the next three years.

It is hard to learn how to be a lawyer without a mentor and it is difficult to gain the trust of strangers in a profession that requires trust to get clients through the door.  I do know something about those problems, and I am confident these are problems that many of us who have been practicing for some time can help new lawyers solve.  If we do not, access to justice for many residents of rural Idaho will be denied. 

We can be more accessible to new lawyers.  We can be more collaborative.  We can be mentors.  I think if I can do something during my three years as a commissioner to encourage some new lawyers to start a practice in one of the many counties in Idaho that have inadequate legal representation, I will have done something to make a difference and to make the Idaho State Bar continue to be relevant to its members.  I am sure those lawyers who take the opportunity and open a practice in a rural community will be good neighbors, productive lawyers, and will make their communities better. 

This is one of the issues I intend to work on during the next three years.  I know that local bar associations are taking steps to make meetings more accessible for lawyers who practice in rural areas.  If we learned one thing in the last year and a half, it is that we can harness technology to help us do business even when it is inconvenient to travel.  Because we are more acquainted with the technology, it is now easier for our friends practicing in rural areas to be included in our local bar meetings and easier for us to mentor those friends practicing in rural areas. 

I am certainly not suggesting that we dispense with face-to-face meetings, but even a phone call to help a new practitioner brainstorm a problem would be helpful.  I look forward to discussing this issue with any of my fellow Bar members who agree that this is a problem worth solving.  Hopefully we can develop some strategies to encourage new lawyers to locate and be successful in rural communities. 

Gary Cooper was raised in Idaho.  He received an undergraduate degree and law degree from the University of Idaho.   He has practiced in Pocatello since 1975.  For the last twenty-three years he has practiced with his good friends, Reed Larsen and Ron Kerl.  He and his wife Jane have three children and five grandchildren.